One of the distinguishing qualities of successful people who lead in any field is the emphasis they place on personal relationships. This is certainly true for those in elective office, for whom personal relationships are as vital as air is to breathing. The critical resource is access, and so the greatest care is given to creating and nurturing networks of people whom they can call on, work with and engage in addressing the issue at hand.
There are six essential aspects of thinking politically in the exercise of leadership: one for dealing with people who are with you on the issue, one for managing those who are in
opposition, and four for working with those who are uncommitted but wary?the people you are trying to move.
Finding partners is sometimes easier said than done. Both your own faction and other camps will happily watch you take on the challenge alone.
Partners might push their own ideas, compromising your own. Connecting with them takes time, slowing you down. And working with a group might dilute your leadership?a drawback if it is important that you get credit, or if you want to reassure yourself and others of your competence.
Tom Edwards and Bill Monahan worked in different parts of a manufacturing company in the Northwest. Tom, who worked in information technology, had found in Bill, who worked in sales, a reliable ally for moving the company kicking and screaming into the world of high-speed IT. Bill not only worked on the IT adaptation within his own group, but he gave Tom credibility on the issue companywide.
Tom and Bill were also good friends, and their families socialized with one another. One evening over dinner, Tom shared with Bill his strategy for getting the senior management team to approve the purchase of a new information management system at a meeting the next day. In the long run, the new system would save the company millions of dollars, but in the short run implementation required a difficult and painful transition in which some folks, including some people in sales, would probably lose their jobs.
Tom sensed some coolness in Bill after he laid out his plan and asked whether something bothered him. “I wish you hadn’t told me,” Bill said. “I need to protect my people on this one, and now you’ve given me some important information as to how I can do that before tomorrow’s meeting.”
In the end, Tom did not lose the alliance because Bill had openly shared his conflicting loyalties. But more often in such cases, an ally like Bill would have just listened, and in the end, he might be tempted by the easier option of staying loyal to his sales group and, in their interest, abandon Tom. All the while, a person in Tom’s shoes might show up at the meeting thinking he had done his groundwork, only to find that his ally had done some preparation too and was taking action to derail the project.
It’s a mistake to go it alone. Before your next meeting, first make sure you’ve made the advance phone calls, tested the waters, refined your approach and lined up supporters. But in the process, find out what you are asking of your potential partners. Know their existing alliances and loyalties so that you realize how far you are asking them to stretch if they are to collaborate with you.
Keep the Opposition Close
To survive and succeed in exercising leadership, you must work as closely with your opponents as you do with your supporters. Most of us cringe at spending time with and especially taking abuse from people who do not share our vision or passion. Too often we take the easy road, ignoring our opponents and concentrating on building an affirmative coalition. But rather than simply recognizing your own anxiety and plowing ahead, you need to read this anxiety both as a vulnerability on your part and as a signal about the threat you represent to the opposing factions. These are clues to the resistance you will face, made worse if you do not engage with your opposition.
People who oppose what you are trying to accomplish are usually those with the most to lose by your success. In contrast, your allies have the least to lose. In other words, opponents who turn around pay dearly in terms of disloyalty to their own roots and constituency; for your allies to come along may cost nothing. For that reason, your opponents deserve more of your attention, as a matter of compassion as well as a tactic of strategy and survival.
Keeping your opposition close connects you with your diagnostic job too. If it is crucial to know where people are at, then the people most critical to understand are those likely to be the most upset by your agenda.
While relationships with allies and opponents are essential, it’s also true that the people who determine your success are often those in the middle, who resist your initiative merely because it will disrupt their life and make their future uncertain. You need to ensure that their general resistance to change doesn’t morph into a mobilization to push you aside. What follows are four steps you can take that are specifically focused on them.
Accept Responsibility for Your Piece of the Mess
If you have been in a senior role for awhile and there’s a problem, it is almost certain that you had some part in creating it and are part of the reason it has not yet been addressed. Even if you are new, or outside the organization, you need to identify those behaviors you practice or values you embody that could stifle the very change you want to advance.
When you are too quick to lay blame on others, whether inside or outside the community, you create risks for yourself. Obviously, you risk misdiagnosing the situation. But you also risk making yourself a target by denying that you are part of the problem and that you too need to change. After all, if you are pointing your finger at them?pushing them to do something they don’t want to do?the easiest option for them is to get rid of you. The dynamic becomes you versus them. But if you are with them, facing the problem together and each accepting some share of responsibility for it, then you are not as vulnerable to attack.
Acknowledge Their Loss
Remember that when you ask people to do adaptive work, you are asking a lot. You may be asking them to choose between two values that are important to the way they understand themselves.
You may be asking people to close the distance between their espoused values and their actual behavior. Martin Luther King Jr. challenged Americans in that way during the civil rights movement. Confronting the gaps between our values and behavior?the internal contradictions in our life and community?requires going through a period of loss. Adaptive work often demands some disloyalty to our roots. To tell someone that he should stop being prejudiced is really to tell him that some of the lessons of his loving grandfather were wrong. Yet the status quo may not look so terrible to those immersed in it and may look pretty good when compared with a future that is unknown. Exercising leadership involves helping organizations and communities figure out what, and whom, they are willing to let go. Of all the values honored by the community, which of them can be sacrificed in the interest of progress?
People are willing to make sacrifices if they see the reason why. But beyond clarifying the values at stake and the greater purposes worth the pain, you also need to name and acknowledge the loss itself. It’s not enough to point to a hopeful future. People need to know that you know what you are asking them to give up on the way to creating a better future. Make explicit your realization that the change you are asking them to make is difficult and that what you are asking them to give up has real value. Grieve with them, and memorialize the loss.
Model the Behavior
Avram was the CEO of a highly successful chemical factory in Israel. One day an explosion occurred on the line, tragically killing two of his employees. He quickly pinpointed the source of the problem and took steps to ensure that it could not happen again.
But whatever he did seemed not enough. Many of his best workers feared coming back to work. They had lost confidence in the safety of the factory, and nothing he said reassured them sufficiently to return to the location where their colleagues had died or to work at their previous level of productivity. Avram came to a decision. He resigned as CEO and took a job on the line, right at the spot where the explosion had taken place. Slowly, workers began to return and production began to creep upward. The company eventually turned a corner. Ten years later, it had become one of the largest in Israel, much more profitable than it had been before the accident.
The CEO had to acknowledge the loss he was asking the workers to accept, in this case the loss of a sense of personal safety. Because their fears were so deep, verbal acknowledgment would not suffice. He had to model the behavior.
But even symbolic modeling can have substantial impact. When Lee Iacocca reduced his own salary to $1 during Chrysler’s troubles, no one worried that Iacocca would go without dinner. But the fact that he was willing to make a personal economic sacrifice helped motivate employees to do likewise as part of the company’s turnaround plan.
If people simply cannot adapt, the reality is that they will be left behind. They become casualties. This is virtually inevitable when organizations and communities go through significant change. Some people simply cannot or will not go along. You have to choose between keeping them and making progress.
A few years ago Marty consulted with a company that did technical work for the defense industry. The organization had enjoyed a long and successful run, but the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 ushered in a new era. The Cold War was over. The new CEO realized that the competition for contracts was getting tougher, that he and his company could no longer rely on their reputation and have the work come to them. He began to think about changing the business, becoming more aggressive and adding to their product line. For many of the long-term and most respected employees, this was hard to accept.
At the CEO’s direction, the senior managers went off to a two-day retreat to chart their future direction. At the end of the retreat, the CEO held a climactic meeting. He wanted an endorsement of the new plan, and he asked each of the participants whether they were with the program. One-by-one, they each said yes, some with great reluctance. The number-three person in the organization sat near the end of the row. He had worked in the organization longer than anyone else present. The room was quiet as everyone waited. He said nothing. Slowly he got up and left the room. He packed his bags, went back and cleaned out his office, and left his letter of resignation on the CEO’s desk. He became a casualty, and the willingness of the CEO to accept his resignation demonstrated to the rest of his team his commitment to change.
People seeking to exercise leadership can be thwarted because, in their unwillingness to take casualties, they give people mixed signals. Surely we would all prefer to bring everyone along, and we admirably hold up this ideal. Unfortunately, casualties are often a necessary byproduct of adaptive work. Without the heart to engage in sometimes costly conflict, you can lose the whole organization.
Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky are on the faculty at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Heifetz is the author of Leadership Without Easy Answers and codirector of the school’s Center for Public Leadership. Linsky is faculty chairman of many of the school’s executive programs, including Senior Officials in State and Local Government, and Leadership for the 21st Century.